Free breakfast in the Listel was soba salad, sushi-style semi-sweet egg, frankfurters, sesame vegetables, yoghurt and natto (a weeeeird sticky fermented bean thing that’s considered a delicacy in japan). Interesting. Sadly outside was another grey day, but carrying my umbrella around all day proved to be entirely pointless as the cloud broke and it became very warm and sunny! In the morning I met Akemi at the police box (like a small office thing) at the East exit of Shinjuku station. I’d decided to walk to the station from my hotel so unfortunately didn’t really have any help of the internal signposting (and the station is huge). Still, after a bit of scrambling around I managed to find what I was looking for!
I hadn’t seen Akemi since March 2005 and I definitely thought she looked older than when I last saw her. I hate how you can’t stop time (for a variety of reasons). On meeting we headed down to Shibuya so that it wasn’t so far for Akemi to get to work when she was due to start (12.30). We went to an awesome yakiniku restaurant that served up possibly the best beansprouts I’ve ever eaten (lol). It was really good to catch up, though I felt that Akemi’s English was a little more shy than before – I’d always thought she was the most confident English speaker amongst the foreign crowd at work. After food & a coffee (surrounded by smokers – yuck – really don’t understand why so many people smoke here, don’t they know it’s bad for you?!) I went with Akemi to her shop (she’s assistant store manager for a swimwear chain’s Shibuya office), Loco Boutique. Her co-workers looked rather shocked to see her turning up with a foreign guy, especially considering I wasn’t the same person that she’d previously introduced as her boyfriend. Ahhhh, assumptions are a wonderful thing. Still after we’d cleared that up we took a couple of groups pics and I headed out to explore Shibuya for a while. The area isn’t exactly culture-rich as it largely caters to the fashion-oriented youth, but I managed to seek out a ‘love hotel’ on love hotel hill (which I found unwittingly, reminds me of the time we ended up in the red light district in Amsterdam by accident, although this was much more tame) before going to check out the crazy kids in a video games arcade. Pete had told me that the arcades and pachinko places were crazy, and I suppose I wasn’t disappointed, though I only passed through quickly as I was due to meet Rena soon after. Still it was interesting to watch the people banging away on electronic arcade drum machines. Afterwards I made my way through the throng along tree-lined boulevards chock full of shops and boutiques before heading back to the station.
After lunch we headed over to the Imperial Palace to check out the gardens. Unfortunately the palace itself is completely closed off to visitors but the interior gardens alone are supposed to be worth the trip. We wandered slowly through the surrounds to the park entry gate only to find out it had closed 5 minutes previously. Dammit! Suppose I should have checked on that, but 4 seemed absurdly early. Anyway, decided to head to Ueno-Koen (park) instead. I really enjoyed this place, it was very peaceful. I’d heard that it’s home to many of Tokyo’s homeless and it was intriguing to see the tents, constructed using pieces of blue plastic sheeting, scattered around the place, surely enough with pairs of shoes lined up neatly outside (lol). Inside the park we visited Toshogu shrine which was practically deserted. I watched with great interest as a businessman and later woman tossed their money into the ‘osaisen’ (donations box) before bowing, clapping twice (to awaken the gods to their prayer) and silently clasping their hands together whilst making their address. I must have stood there for 5 minutes just watching them. To one side of the shrine was a wish wall adorned with numerous wooden placards – you could buy one for 500 yen or so and write your wishes on it. Most of them were wishing for good fortune for their families etc. but I was fascinated by both the number and variety of the messages.
On the long approach to the shrine was a world peace monument dedicated to the abolishment of atomic weapons in commemoration of the WWII victims. I couldn’t help but feel a deep sadness whilst gazing at the eternally burning flame housed within. The feeling was not unlike ground zero in NYC, although not as overwhelming. Rena later commented on how I’d gone quiet for a time during our visit, though I’m not sure if that was as a result or more that it was a product of thinking about how much I didn’t want to do the things I had to do when I got home :( sigh.
At around 5.30 the park was winding down (they generally are open from dawn ’til dusk and it gets darker quite a bit earlier in Japan than England) so we made our way out after a brief frisbee experiment cut short due to fear of arrest/decapitation of pedestrians to a funky street called ameyoko dori. Here there were a myriad of street stalls, mostly seafood and bric-a-brac clothing vendors. It was extremely colourful, if not a bit smelly. Unfortunately we were a little pressed for time so Rena and I headed to an izakaya for dinner – basically a restaurant/bar which sells a bit of everything. There places are awesome and should definitely be imported to the UK (along with Wendy’s and green tea frappuccinos)! Inside, our table was excellently located between a pair of stereotypical Japanese late teen/early 20s girls and a middle aged salaryman with teenage girl. I asked Rena to translate some of their conversation, arguably the most interesting of which was the girls talking about how fat people should have no rights. It actually seemed like one girl was doing most of the talking whilst the other one nodded and giggled a lot.
After Rena left for home I headed to Shinjuku’s skyscraper district (which I’d ended up in earlier in the day when I forgot where I was supposed to be meeting her) to check out the nighttime cityscapes available from their viewing decks. Sadly the ‘free’ areas weren’t that great and most of the views were offered from within bars, restaurants and… exotic dance clubs. I tried to take a couple of pictures but the amount of reflection was kind of limiting so they didn’t come out very well. The second building I went to was quite interesting though in that it was in the shape of a hollow triangular cylinder, so you could see into the interior chasm through the windows. Also the first building’s elevator was so fast that my ears popped four times on the way up to the 53rd floor! Crazy.
Later I took a detour through the Kabuki-cho district of Shinjuku on the way back to my hotel. This area is kind of like the red-light district, although it is also home to many of the city’s theatres and karaoke clubs. I felt as if I was targeted by the black stereotype-conforming doormen as a single foreigner wandering late at night, though they soon desisted after I made it explicit that I wasn’t in the mood for buying pussy tonight (seriously!), despite their claims that life is too short :)
Closer to my hotel the streets became decidedly more Japanese once again. I was amazed at how every restaurant, no matter how small, seemed to have customers at 11pm on a Tuesday. I was also amazed by the number of 24 hour convenience stores and vending machines that are littered around the city – they are literally everywhere!!! Plus they aren’t significantly more expensive, if at all, than the ‘konbinya’ – lessons to be learned. Did make me wonder how they are stocked up all the time though, given the vast number…